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John Kopchick helix demo

2012 Distinguished Professor John Kopchick uses a water bottle to show how his team at the Edison Biotechnology Institute visualized the structure of human growth hormone.

Photographer: Chris Franz

McDavis reaction

Kopchick's lecture was heavy on humor, drawing laughs from audience members including Ohio University President Roderick McDavis and First Lady Deborah McDavis.

Photographer: Chris Franz


President McDavis and 2012 Distinguished Professor Mark Halliday greet Kopchick outside the Baker Theater Lounge. "Dr. Kopchick possesses the very characteristics we seek in our Distinguished Professors," McDavis said.

Photographer: Chris Franz

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2012 Distinguished Professor Lecture entertains while it educates

John Kopchick shows how mice, football and dirty shorts led to groundbreaking drug

The discovery of human growth hormone receptor antagonist—and its development into a blockbuster drug that has helped thousands of people around the world and made tens of millions of dollars for Ohio University—resulted from two happy accidents.

That was the message of the 2012 Distinguished Professor Lecture delivered on March 18 by John Kopchick, Goll-Ohio Eminent Scholar and professor of molecular biology. Kopchick is a faculty member in the Biomedical Sciences Department in the Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine and a member of the Edison Biotechnology Institute.

In a rollicking presentation that included snippets of songs by Dean Martin and Garth Brooks and a lesson in OHIO football history, Kopchick revealed not only the brilliance that earned him the Distinguished Professorship, but also a great sense of humor.

As its name suggests, human growth hormone regulates an individual’s physical development. Too little HGH, and you have dwarfism. Too much and you have a form of gigantism called acromegaly.

Kopchick became interested in HGH in the early 1980s while working as a molecular biologist for Merck, the pharmaceutical company. After joining the OHIO faculty in 1987, he continued to study the compound.

Which led to the first happy accident: An experiment that Kopchick and his then-graduate student, Wen Chen, expected to end with a giant mouse produced instead a dwarf mouse. “Wen Chen was afraid to show me [the results] because I was so convinced we’d get a big mouse,” Kopchick told the audience.

Kopchick, Chen, and other OHIO scientists published their findings in the December 1991 issue of the journal Molecular Endocrinology. Asked for an image to put on the journal’s cover, Kopchick joked that the journal could use the image only if it used OHIO’s green and white as the background colors. When he received his copy of the journal and discovered that he’d been taken seriously, Kopchick said he ran across campus to the president’s house and demanded to see then-President Charles Ping.

“I forgot that he’d just had two knee replacements the week before,” Kopchick said. “He was so nice to be excited about it.”

Kopchick then engaged in a long and fruitless search for a company that would sponsor his work to developing the discovery into a medication. Enter happy accident number two.

Kopchick’s workout partner at the time was Joe Dean, a former OHIO football standout who was an assistant football coach. Kopchick complained to Dean about his trouble in finding a backer for their compound. “Joe said, ‘John, why don’t you give my old friend Rick a call?’” and jotted a name and phone number on a Post-It note. Kopchick put it in his workout shorts pocket, where his wife found it while sorting laundry. Kopchick immediately made the call.

Dean’s “old friend” was Rick Hawkins, BA ’72, a member of the undefeated 1968 Bobcats football team. Hawkins had become an entrepreneur in drug development; he and Kopchick formed a company called Sensus to develop and test the drug that became known as pegvisoment. Approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2003 and now licensed to Pfizer, Somavert (pegvisomant for injection) has sales of more than $200 million a year and has earned the University more than $80 million in royalties—making OHIO one of the top four schools nationwide in royalty income from products based on campus research.

The more important return on the investment, Kopchick said, was the thousands of people with acromegaly, a form of gigantism, whose disease has been alleviated by Somavert. Among them was a 37-year-old father of two from Sweden who was diagnosed with acromegaly at age 32 and who would not have lived to see his children graduate from college without Somavert.

“It doesn’t get any better than that,” said a clearly emotional Kopchick.

Kopchick’s EBI team also has developed a transgenic mouse with disrupted receptors for GH. These mice are dwarf, fat and unexpectedly long lived—in fact, one of those mice won the Methuselah Mouse Prize from the journal Nature for the longest-lived laboratory mouse. He died just shy of five years, or the equivalent of 150 human years.

Recently, humans with the same type of mutation in the GH receptor have been reported to be dwarf, fat and not to have any types of cancer, very similar to what was found in Kopchick’s mouse line.

“Our mice are saying something fundamental about what’s happening in people with dwarfism due to a deficiency of GH action,” Kopchick said.

The team has published a paper (which, Kopchick proudly noted, includes many undergraduates as co-authors) in the current issue of Molecular Endocrinology, discussing the effect of GH on fat tissue. The cover features a picture of one of the EBI “fat” mice—against a green-and-white background. That sent Kopchick running across campus once again.

“I ran up the stairs in Cutler Hall and said, ‘Dr. McDavis, guess what?!”

Mark Halliday

2011 Distinguished Professor Mark Halliday reads his poem at the Distinguished Professor Lecture March 18.

A poetic introduction

In keeping with tradition, John Kopchick was introduced by the previous year’s Distinguished Professor. Professor of English Mark Halliday, though, made the introduction in a rather untraditional way: in rhyme. His poem paid tribute not only to Kopchick, but also to Ohio University’s dedication to the exploration of the human condition across a myriad of disciplines.

Introduction for Distinguished Professor John Kopchick

You probably didn’t think I could do this in verse;
but I will exercise my poetic skills, for better or for worse.

When a poet gets to introduce a molecular biologist it’s a great opportunity —
or so my colleagues have told me, implying that with impunity

a poet can say anything he or she pleases,
since poets are not expected to cure diseases

by comprehending hormones or other microscopic juices,
whereas a scientist like Professor John Kopchick deduces

relations between molecules which I can’t begin to name
and why they recombine as new compounds or stay the same.

Actually such brilliance in biochemistry gives me anxiety
because traditionally it’s part of poetry’s piety

to believe that the strange turmoil of human existence
maintains forever a profound resistance

to logical analysis and laboratory proof.
Fortunately, though, our fine university includes under one roof

the sciences and the arts, because for both,
in different ways, the challenge is to understand and foster human growth.

Together on this round nexus of chemical systems called Earth
we study the infinite entanglement of life for all we’re worth —

a curriculum whose complexity is so demanding
that we need every kind of understanding

in order to avoid being extinguished
and thus we are grateful for a biologist so distinguished

as John Kopchick, whose work does much to illumine
what is human.